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R.I. governor threatens 1,000 layoffs

Gov. Don Carcieri warned Thursday he will lay off 1,000 state workers after a judge blocked him from shutting down government to save money.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gov. Don Carcieri warned Thursday he will lay off 1,000 state workers after a judge blocked him from shutting down government to save money, but he signaled a willingness to cut a deal with state employee unions that could save jobs.

The governor threatened layoffs shortly after Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg stopped him from forcing about 80 percent of the roughly 13,500-member state work force to stay home without pay Friday. Carcieri cannot order a shutdown until the full court has a chance to consider the case.

Friday's closure was supposed to be the first of a dozen shutdown days before July designed to partially close a $68 million shortfall in a state budget hammered by surging unemployment and dwindling tax revenue.

Carcieri earlier described the ruling as "the straw that broke the camel's back" and ruinous for the state's finances, but he softened his tone after meeting with his legal team at the Statehouse.

'Running out of time'
"That's my preference, to negotiate this and come to an agreement..." Carcieri said. "But we're running out of time."

Under his plan, the layoffs would target those employees hired most recently, a decision meant to minimize delays caused by union rules allowing senior employees who are laid off to take the jobs of less-experienced workers.

Carcieri did not say which government agencies would be targeted, and his spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.

Laying off so many people could take weeks or even months, especially if some of those workers would have to be replaced because their jobs are critical to the state, union leaders said. They were uncertain Thursday whether Carcieri was bluffing or making a genuine threat.

"I think calmer heads need to prevail," said Philip Keefe, president of the Rhode Island Alliance of Social Service Employees, Local 580. "He needs to go back to the negotiating table and stop with the threats. I don't think they're productive."

"The way to settle this is through negotiation and not threats and intimidation," Keefe said.

Carcieri's warning rattled state workers in a state with a 12.7 percent unemployment rate.

Previous threats
"I am totally willing to take 12 furlough days in order to avoid people being laid off," said Cristina Dichiera, a program director for the Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, who hoped both sides could reach a compromise.

Hired in 2004, Dichiera said getting laid off "would be so bad, I don't even want to think about it."

Carcieri has previously used the threat of layoffs as a bargaining chip.

In late 2007, Carcieri said he would eliminate roughly 1,000 state jobs to help close a budget deficit. His administration eventually cut the jobs of more than 200 workers and contract employees, then forced many more workers into early retirement by reducing their health benefits unless they left their state jobs.

Carcieri promised not to lay off more workers once unions agreed to a pay freeze and to contribute more toward the cost of their health insurance.

The high court has scheduled a private meeting with lawyers for both sides on Sept. 11.

In 1991, the state's top court allowed then-Gov. Bruce Sundlun to proceed with a shutdown of state government to save money during a financial crisis. Workers lost two days of pay before Sundlun struck a cost-cutting deal with the unions.